Thursday, July 15, 2010

Taking Aim

October 28th will mark the ten-year anniversary of the death of my younger sister, Wendy, whose life was taken at the hands of a nineteen-year-old girl with an illegally possessed handgun and a deadly desire for some quick cash. That one bullet’s speedy path put my life on a new and different trajectory as swiftly and surely as if it had exited that barrel and sliced through my own body after it went through hers.

I never knew much about guns. They weren’t something we really grew up around, despite living in Texas, one of the gun capitals of the U.S. Even as I moved to L.A., amidst a time of riots and cultural warfare, it was still far removed from my sheltered existence. Many years after I arrived here, my sister moved to L.A. and into a home with me while she went to college and I went to grad school. Oddly enough, she had a fascination with guns and liked to go to the range and shoot. I remember her coming home one day and taping her target to her bedroom door, proud of her bulls-eye shot to the chest of a faceless paper man. She said I should come with her sometime, and though I intended to, thinking it would be a good idea to know how to shoot a gun, to understand what it feels like in your hand and how it works, we never got the chance.

Three weeks before she was killed, she told me that someone had brandished a gun at her out a car window while she was stopped at an intersection in Hollywood. I can remember the fear I felt as she told me how she had floored the gas pedal and sped through the red light away from any potential danger. Little did either of us know that such a short while later, she would come quite literally face to face with a similar weapon and, despite her cooperation with the young female robber, would not have such a chance to escape.

Suddenly, the power and danger of a handgun was part of my terrifying reality. And advocating for safe, sensible and legal gun ownership laws became a personal platform. But I had still never seen a handgun closer than across the courtroom glass, never held one in my hand, never pulled a trigger. And as much as I was deeply afraid, it was actually still something I wanted to do. Yet for almost ten years, I avoided it. And then, a couple of weeks ago, the opportunity presented itself, rendered in a thoughtful and pressure-free manner, leaving me only to ask myself if I was really ready. It turned out to be an unexpected gift, strange as that may seem. And it turned out that I was.

As we filled out our paperwork at the gun range, I watched the steady hand of my soon-to-be firing instructor tick off expert in each of the categories. I took surprising comfort in the fact that I was in the company of a professional sniper, currently serving a commission with the U.S. Special Forces. His energy was calm and positive, and it steadied me as much as anything could have at that moment. We donned the prerequisite gear – eye and ear protection before heading into the range. I had held the gun unloaded the day before when we had first retrieved it, and even then, essentially harmless, it had caused my hands to go clammy and my heart to palpitate. Loaded was a whole different story. But as I learned to load the bullets and position myself, I tried my best to focus on the process, and distance myself from the potential outcome. Which worked, mostly. Until I took aim and pulled the trigger for the first time, and felt the recoil that accompanied the loud crack as the bullet sped out of its chamber. And then the shaking started and I broke out in a cold sweat. I placed the gun on the shelf and took several steps back to catch my breath.

In that moment, I suddenly knew, if nothing else, the gravity of holding a loaded handgun in between your palms. I knew the fine line when the trigger hit its release point. I felt the strength of the gun as it kicked in my hands, as if wanting to be free of me. And I suddenly couldn’t imagine, all over again, how a nineteen year-old girl could have done what she did that night. There is nothing that feels careless or cavalier about holding a gun. There is nothing easy or simple about it. And holding one that day made me all the more committed to making sure people understand what a dangerous thing it can be in the hands of the untrained and unskilled, and how important it is for lawful gun owners to do everything in their power to keep these weapons from finding their way into the wrong hands.

We stayed for around an hour, and I only fired a handful of rounds. That first shot was probably my best and I think it was because it took that first pull for reality to actually set in. But I sucked it up, and forced myself to shoot again and again, grateful for the steady, even energy at my side – gently teaching and explaining and guiding me into the correct position. Grateful to him for making me feel safe and secure as I faced my fear. It will not be the last time I shoot, for comfort, security and knowledge only come with practice, patience and experience. I am certain it will make me a more thorough and well-rounded speaker when I raise my voice on the subject of gun control. And I’ve been promised that the next time, we can try something with better aim, less recoil and a little distance from such a painful association. Which, quite frankly, for now, sounds good to me.